The ‘Old Peak’ Of The Inca

“Remember to bury these under the Sun Gate.”

Frank, our guide, handed over a bunch of coca leaves…. “For luck.”

I carefully tucked the leaves into my pocket before boarding our train to Aguas Calientes. Frank was going to await our return to the Sacred Valley, the next evening.

We lucked out with front row seats to the spectacle of nature unfolding outside the plate glass windows of our Vistadome train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. The latter turned out to be a huge let down, but our hotel was on the edge of town and our corner room, overlooking the roaring Urubamba river, gorgeous.
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The hotel was a splurge after our humble home-stays and apartments across the continent. But the package, although pricey, came with noteworthy extras: a special dinner, entrance tickets, a three hour guided visit, evening tea and cakes and a late checkout. Best of all, no waiting in line at the bus stop. Hotel staff held seats for us on the bus, and we just swapped places when it stopped at our doorstep!

The trepidation I felt on the hair raising drive up, was not all because of those crazy hairpin bends. This was the trip of a lifetime and I fretted about a possible discrepancy between reality and our overly high expectations.

The forecast was cloudy and we weren’t climbing Huyana Picchu.  A 1000 feet high sheer cliff with narrow, uneven steps and no protective railing…I am not quite that adventurous and R has issues with altitude. So with no reason for an unearthly wake up call, we timed our arrival for 7AM.

It was still chilly and the sun, indecisive, as we walked down the path from the nondescript entrance.

And there it was! The Lost City! The mother of all world heritage sites….the remarkable architectural feat of the Inca that was built and abandoned in a matter of a hundred years for reasons unknown.
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And it was every bit as impressive as I had imagined. Even more so, if that were possible! No words or pictures can do it justice. Granted this doesn’t match the landmarks of other ancient civilizations in antiquity or architectural complexity. But that setting!

Nestled between soaring, jungle clad mountains with the rio Urubamba hugging the base and those unbelievable stone terraces spilling over the edge. How could anyone be underwhelmed by this extraordinary, almost spiritual merging of architecture and nature?
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There is speculation that Machu Picchu (Quechua Machu for ‘old’, and Picchu for ‘top’, meaning “Old Peak”) might have been a private palace for Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui, the ninth and greatest Inca emperor (1438-1470).

However some of its finest buildings and the main ceremonial gateway to the city testify that it was (also?) a place of worship to the Sun God, a sanctuary to the greatest deity in the Inca pantheon.

Thus making it plausible that this sanctuary might have been abandoned in the 16th century to avoid any likelihood of leading the conquistadors to it.

And it remained a ‘lost city’ until its (re?) discovery by professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. Bingham carted away many treasures from the site that are now the source of a protracted legal tussle between the Peruvian government and Yale University.

 Temple of Three Windows - Machu Picchu
The Temple of Three Windows
The Intihuatana, Machu Picchu
The Intihuatana – also referred to as the hitching post of the sun – all to ourselves!

By the time the coach loads of day-trippers started pouring in, our guided tour was done and we were ready for our hour long trek to the Sun Gate or Intipunku: the ceremonial entrance to the city. This is the culmination point of the 4 day Inca trek, and from here trekkers get their first glimpse of the sanctuary and that amazing landscape.

Gloomy had turned ominous by the time we returned some two hours later, and we hadn’t brought any rain gear. Silly, I know. And not the right sunblock either! Have you ever heard of an Indian getting sunburnt? You have now. I spent hours camouflaging my peeling, blackened nose for nearly six months after! Not pretty.
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A slight drizzle chased us out, after a few quick shots of the classic postcard view. Outside, I just HAD to get the mandatory stamp on my passport! A special centenary stamp this year.
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We had just ordered – a rather expensive – coffee and pastry at the cafe outside while waiting out the long lines for the bus drive down, when the sun decided it had played hooky long enough. R looked at me and knew I was going back in for another shot.

“What if it rains by the time we get there?” he asked hopefully.

“It won’t…..our luck has held out so far”

It did. And that steep climb back in was worth the effort for one last sun drenched shot of the citadel.
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It wasn’t until two days later that our luck ran out. Freak ash clouds from Chile affected flights to Buenos Aires. We were stranded in Lima, and missed our connection to El Calafate.

Racing to the airport hotel at midnight in the hope of finding a room after getting our exit stamps annulled, I stuck my hands in my jacket pocket and felt the crackle of dried coca leaves.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

77 thoughts on “The ‘Old Peak’ Of The Inca

  1. These pictures are absolutely spectacular! I want to follow in your footsteps and take in these very same sights. Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for a while. Maybe it needs to be moved up a couple slots.

    1. It certainly does Juliann. The earlier the better, especially if you mean to hike the trail, or Huyana Picchu. Wish I had found the courage somehow πŸ™‚

  2. this is such a great post, down to the final sentence! were you there just before those horrid floods a few years ago when tourists were airlifted out?

    i loved every sentence and every photo, especially those great llamas!

    1. Delighted Lisa! Thank you so much.
      We went last year, and it happened to be the centenary of its discovery by Bingham!

  3. Hawww !! Inca without me?! I have been dying to go there (remember my motorcycle ride to Machu Pichhu?!), well, I am STILL dreaming, BUT, so happy to read your experience, especially coming from such a tremendous photographer – I actually feel that I am there !! Totally relished going through each photo and the words you have personalised the experience with. Do take a leaf for me – and when we ever meet, I shall take it from you and use it as bookmark ! Happy travel, meri dost. Love ya !

    1. Hadn’t met you then Mashaal…..could always return with you someday, Inshallah πŸ˜€ Thank you for reading and for the generous comments!

  4. Wonderful place… Perhaps everything is pre-planned… Perhaps there is one more trip down to Machu Picchu in the offing… Perhaps to bury those coca leaves…

    1. Amen! Thathastu! Whatever can make it happen! Shall go buy a lottery ticket for what it is worth πŸ˜€

    1. Most people line up for sunrise in MP, which is at best elusive. And the location deep in that hollow means sunlight doesn’t suffuse the entire site till quite late.That’s why most images are dull and grey, although it has its own charm when it is shrouded in mist. But I had read, and can now vouch for the fact, that late afternoon is the best time for pictures.

      For someone like Ron, it would be ideal to visit on one afternoon and then return the next morning in the hope of a perfect sunrise. That would of course entail double entrance fees 😦

  5. I well remember holding my breath through those hairpin bends. πŸ™‚ What a magnificent place is Machu Picchu. We also had to do a second visit the following day. Too good to miss. Sorry you forgot about the Coca leaves. πŸ™‚

    1. Glad you like my images Nirav πŸ™‚ I doubt the site will load fast enough if I post larger ones. The Picture My World post is almost full resolution I think.

  6. Your narrative made me feel as though I was sitting on the train seat next to you….next time I want the window!
    Wonderful story and photographs.

  7. I am sitting here green with envy and so admiring your photos Madhu. We had this trip planned about 3 years ago when Terry’s father became ill and we had to cancel. Someday… πŸ™‚

  8. The photos are fantastic, and you are a very fine storyteller, Madhu! I have never been before, but hope to one day. Your post is a great incentive!

  9. I don’t think I have ever seen an array of photos of Machu Picchu like yours — there is so much more to it than that classic postcard shot. Thank you for sharing. I hope to get there some day. ~ Kat

  10. Lovely post, I really enjoyed revisiting this place. Out of this world!
    You have a very nice blog, I look forward to following you.
    Love Dina

  11. It’s like looking at another time where everything is magical and amazing. What an adventure of a lifetime. You are truly blessed to be a part of this and to be closed to the enchanting world of the Incas.

  12. Madhu, I feel as if I have been there now! Your words and stunning pictures have summed up a place I may never see, and have had a profound effect. This is one of the great things about blogging: we see so much more than we experience first hand. From the bottom of my heart: thank you.

  13. Oh what a beautiful travelogue with breathtaking pictures of he Inca civilization which existed somewhere in the 3th century. I remember studying about the Inca’s in my geography. It is amazing how you travel out to such faraway locations.

    Cheers & thank you Madhu! πŸ™‚

  14. How envious I am of your amazing travels…this trip is a particularly fascinating one! Great pictures Madhu.

  15. This post again. This particular is what makes me so jealous of your travels. You write so eloquently, too. Envy to the bone.
    It’s not just the unreachable numbers of places you’ve gone to, but I always love, and admire, your persistence. A mark, a testiment of a true traveling spirit.
    Professional writing, awesome pics for a grand tourist location!

    1. Thank you Shakeel. Apologies for the late response. Started out thinking I would respond to every comment, but just can’t seem to keep up!

  16. Machu Picchu is such a magical place! I hiked the Inca Trail to MP last year – one of the hardest and most rewarding of all my experiences!

    1. Wish I could have done the hike too. But we had a wonderful time nevertheless. Thanks for the visit and comment Amira. Apologies for the belated response πŸ™‚

  17. oh Madhu I’m so glad I found this wonderful post. Your write up and photos are perfect – I understand so much more about the place than before. My sincere congratulations.
    Interesting that Peru are trying to get their “items” from Yale U.
    That’s a vicious sun for you to be sunburned for 6 months!
    I love that you call it MP.

  18. The Native tribes have always held a fascination for me. Loved this post! Thanks for telling your readers what ‘Macchu Picchu’ means πŸ™‚ The photographs were beautiful!

  19. what an adventure! i would love to have the opportunity to go there. i was wondering if you ‘felt’ anything there? peace, calm, death, spirits?

  20. I am doing South America next year, Brazil, Chile, Peru, and hopefully Ecuador for the Galapagos. Your posts here have some amazing photos and very well-written. I wont be hiking the Inca Trail though, as I don’t like doing things in tour groups or with guides, so I will be just getting the train up to Machu Picchu. πŸ™‚

  21. I like that you admit your limits as an adventurer. Your photos represent your points well. You provide the armchair traveler information about the place. But like Paula above comments, I would like to know your feelings, reactions, and observations of it as a holy place.

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